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Elaine Barkin: active participant.

In Feminine Endings Susan McClary Writes that Janika Vandervelde "began to recognize certain masculinist traits in many of the techniques she had been taught or had absorbed from her lifelong exposure to classical music" (33). Elaine Barkin, too, recognizes the male influence/dominance in her background. In her "Questionnaire" to women composers, published in Perspectives of New Music, Barkin states that "Most of us have been brought up in a world of ideas authored, directed, conceived of, by men" (460). And, in "Music as a Way of Life," she expresses her concerns and presents her own alternatives:

The original concern was not to find yet another way to compose

music but to find a way to be an inhabitant in a world of music that

could be done and made and shared with others within a noncompetitive,

nonhierarchical, and non-authoritarian environment.

And to achieve a music whose content reflects the shared experiences

of its participants, interacting with and supporting one

another; where the search is for community rather than audience . . .

where music is experienced live and is, at its moments of creation, a

living experience . . . we meet at home, at school, out-of-doors; a

participant suggests an idea, a working hypothesis, a strategy, a

thought; we listen, we sound, we make our time, we shape ourselves.


The instruments vary from conventional to unconventional; sessions last from twenty to ninety minutes. In this community "participants are both |workers and consumers'; old traditional codes are not being recreated once again; rather, new codes for new messages are coming into being. . . ." (4). This different path is obviously at odds with the already established and male-dominated musical world, at odds with what our various institutions dictate as acceptable musical activity, especially the activity of "respectable" musicians/composers.

These traditional codes Barkin refers to, those of how to write "acceptable" music, how to teach music theory, history, and performance, do not necessarily dictate the absolute "right" way for everyone. Barkin recognized the need for a change after some time of being immersed in the

traditional world of music and role of composer, the need for a different

way of expressing herself as a composer/musician:

traditional professional practices and rituals of music making, of

teaching, learning and listening to music were no longer congenial.

. . . I distanced myself further and further from the fairly conventional

musician-composer image I had once held so essential to my

own sense of identity and began to search for a way to acknowledge

the accumulated history of my past and the dogma and tradition I

had been taught, yet not be bound to their continuance, to those

same old obligations or responses. To sever and disrupt but not self-destruct.

Not so easy. (5)

Perhaps the beginnings of Barkin's awareness of the need for working out such an alternative can be seen in "To Whom It May Concern." In this essay, Barkin expresses her discontent:

For as long as I am processing, the composedmusic is wholly mine,

is recognizably part of me: Mine to deface, scratch out, fuss with,

love, reject, save, hear, not hear, keep. But then comes a moment

when I put the pencil down. . . . And at that moment I am, I feel,

nonplussed. Disengaged. Intercepted. (191) She goes on to explain that, even though the performance of Ebb Tide (the piece referred to in the essay) was a good performance:

The worst of it was just sitting there and listening and knowing that

I had written all those sounds but feeling, anguishedly, detached,

apart; out there. Another stranger. (193) And, Barkin concludes with:

I do not yet imagine that I would refuse to have some work of mine

performed. But to clamorously pursue such activity, to imagine that

that's what music is about, that that's why I continue to compose is

to pursue and imagine a marketplace publicworld as the best recipient

of my private world, and I cannot believe in that. (194) Barkin's solution is to keep her world a private yet personal world, to control access, so to speak, which will keep out the unwanted, dominating, traditional codes, the unwanted authority, yet without giving up responsibility (nor does she completely abandon the connection to her past). Looking again at "Music as a Way of Life," she admits that there is frustration in this:

Although it is a way of life full of promise and presence, it can also

be a lonely way since at its very moments of inception and existence

it is a way dependent on socialization; yet there are times when it has

been difficult to find others to be and work with. (5) There are risks, as well:

we are aware of the divergence of the practices of this alternative,

non-power-structured, uncosmeticized, and uncommoditized music

culture from the aims of the very institutions which shelter and feed

so many of us: most institutions regard the preservation and conservation

of a wide spectrum of the past and far narrower segments of

the present as their first duty to their backers and constituents. (5-6) The institutions feed themselves by looking "for ways to display, popularize, publicize, and reap the benefits of the work of its inhabitants" (6). In the private, interactive musical community that Barkin advocates, nothing is "produced" for the institutions to exploit.

In her essay, "On Being and Not Being a Composer," Barkin explains that she now considers herself an "active Participant" rather than a traditional composer (5). She has chosen to turn

away from Composing as a Primary Way of Life to try to reinvent a

world within which to live . . . seeking neither hermetic refuge nor

public sanction ,but rather [to] multiply possible ways of interconnecting

with willing others, as person, participant . . . on a scale

unmistakably human and manifestly personal. (4) This involves "engaging in RealSoundtime socio-music-making activities, on the lookout for ways to advocate and support interactive Group-Play" (5). And as an educator she explains that

if I were ever asked to design a music or any sort of program, I

would propose the formation of autonomous and group-determined

setups, as many as are wanted, wherein group members have a genuine

vested interest in and are co-owners of their pursuits, their

music, their experiences, their lives. (6)

The music that Barkin produces outside of the "interactive GroupPlay" clearly reflects her philosophy of music and composition. In order to illustrate this philosophy, I have selected three pieces to discuss. The two tape collage pieces, past is part of and On the Way to Becoming, are based on Barkin's original texts which express, and are one result of, the working out of her attitude toward her past, her identity, her present. The third piece, . . . Out of the Air. . . , is for basset horn and tape, "conceived for and inspired by sounds & words of Georgina Dobree." I will discuss the tape collage pieces in detail, and . . . Out of the Air . . . briefly, show how they illustrate and support Barkin's ideas about music/composition, and I will juxtapose some points presented in the essay "The Laugh of the Medusa," by Helene Cixous with Barkin's ideas to show how Barkin's work parallels and resembles that of Cixous.

In past is part of, a soliloquy written in 1985, Barkin explores different aspects of "past": it is "not all not now," yet, on the other hand the past is recollectable, "retrievable"; it can be disregarded, "negligible," or it can have affected in various degrees, "priorly nourishing." Time is loaded; experiences add up; all that has taken place has "made its mark, left its traces, voiced its sound, had its time, did its thing." Having experienced all that has happened up until now, "consider: the superfluity of resummoning or eulogizing." To praise or do over again that which has already happened, has been done, experienced, is no longer necessary; it is finished. You are who you are because of and perhaps in spite of what you have experienced. Do not dwell on the past, "a nod or a wink might do," acknowledge it, but "the trick is to move on."

On the page the text is not presented as a boxed, line-1-to-line-12, entity, but it is spread out, emphasizing phrases and timing; space is left for thought, or is required for the thinking-out of the idea itself. As a tape collage, Barkin pieces together various sounds with and around the text. She experiments in reading the text in various ways: whispered; spoken; intelligibly; unintelligibly; fragmented; with repetitions and overlappings of various words and phrases; text as foreground; text as background; added thoughts or elaborations on the text. The sounds used to build the collage, besides the spoken and whispered voice, are sung tones, sung words, possibly improvised piano passages, children's voices, tape-delay echoes, and feedback.

Past is part of, the tape collage, is in three sections, and each section has some clearly audible and understandable text (either a part of the original text, or the text in its entirety). The text itself seems to run almost continuously through the entire collage (along with elaborations on the text), although it is not always intelligible. Barkin begins the collage, whispering, with tape-delay echoes; various words and phrases are repeated and overlapped; extra comments, elaborations, begin almost immediately. The density thickens quickly; piano is added. Then sung tones and children's voices enter, followed by tape-delay feedback. For the first time, now, the clearly intelligible spoken voice enters: "now's time freighted accumulatively. . . ." Obviously foreground material, it quickly fades to the background, with sung tones (on the word "thing"?) and whispering competing for the foreground. "Thing" finally becomes foreground material, at least briefly. This first section comes to an end shortly after "oh, ah, oh" enters, when a low, almost multiphonic, growling stops abruptly.

The second section begins with clearly spoken text accompanied by piano, whispering, and an echo which is spaced further away than in Section I. The text continues from its beginning, "past is part of" through to "consider," with various repetitions. After "consider," the first line "past is part of not all not now" comes back, is retrieved, then a sol--do oscillation enters and competes for the foreground with the whispering and speaking. "The trick is to move on," the last line of the text, brings this section to an end, with the continued whispering and entrance of audible children's voices making a transition into the third and final section.

No text is clearly intelligible in the beginning of the final section, until the children shout: "Michael!" "What!?!" Then, partly intelligible words are sung: There had made its mark, left its traces, voiced its sound, had its time, did its thing." This melds into a low-pitched, spoken "consider: the superfluity . . . ." which quickly becomes unintelligible, until "the trick is to move on," which is repeated several times. In the background there have been variations of the oscillating sol-do figure, now an oscillation around one pitch at a high frequency (which begins to sound more like filtered white noise), and later this is joined by a low pitch oscillation. But, before this low pitch enters, the text elaborations become foreground material: "This past, may have been so important, at one time, but now no longer is. . . ." These elaborations continue with the pitch oscillations, ending with "but to live, we must move on, must, must, on." Finally, the clearly intelligible spoken voice returns: "had its time, did its thing/consider: /the superfluity of resummoning or eulogizing/ whereas a nod or a wink might do/the trick is to move on, to move on, to move on." During this, the whispering ceases, and the oscillating pitch continues, moves on, alone, to the end.

Barkin allows the listener freedom in this piece by not forcing foreground material out front. Frequently, elements compete for the foreground (and the listener's attention) which gives the listener a chance to choose (or forces the listener to choose, to participate). I do not think the listener is confused by this; I found it quite intriguing and enjoyed focusing my listening in several different ways. Barkin draws the listener into the text, into the meaning of the text, with augmentations, a fleshing-out of the written text. Even the body is evident in the presentation and make-up of this piece. The quiet whispering produces the moist sound of the mouth, so much so that the sound, the act, of whispering becomes more important than the words themselves. And, in the opposite extreme, the low-pitched speaking, which almost becomes growling, makes the listener aware of the body producing the sound. Also, this work is not propelled forward, as traditional music is, by tension and release, attraction and repulsion; the goal does not seem to be a climax, but, rather, the exploration of "past," which is a continuing, affecting, oscillating thing itself.

On the Way to Becoming (1985), another tape collage piece, is also based on an original text by Barkin, a reflection, written in December of 1984. The text is set on the page as prose, as a boxed paragraph. It explores the process of "becoming." As children, we experiment with role playing, copying those around us. Even as we grow and mature we take on aspects of others, voluntarily and involuntarily. Barkin expresses the cyclic aspect of becoming, the struggle of growth, maturing, the taking-on of characteristics or habits of others that at first are comfortable, then become uncomfortable or unwanted, and so are shed. On the other hand, sometimes what we adopt from others may at first feel uncomfortable, constraining, but after the passage of time, become more comfortable. ("The longer the wear the less the bind feels.") Until we get used to it, then, "The want to become again revives." Then comes the realization, or momentary awareness, that the outward appearance may become "our real thing" (instead of who or what we are, inside). To apply this to Barkin, or any other composer, the important thing is that a composer develop her or his own voice rather than taking on the voice/ language of others. However, when we are surrounded by all that has been put upon, that is artificial, we are not really us in the first place, so comes the necessity to "unbecome to become," to get rid of all that is unnatural so that the real self can truly emerge. This is a continuous process, never ending, which is implied at the end of the text with "Until."

This process of becoming, the struggle of growth, is represented by a monochord throughout On the Way to Becoming; it creates constant tension. The piece begins with the monochord, which is plucked, bowed, scraped, and hit, throughout the piece. (At times this instrument sounds like nails scratching on a chalkboard!) The text, which is quietly whispered, is not always intelligible and is often completely obscured by the monochord. The sound of the whispering, the moist clicking, becomes a rhythmic layer itself. The listener is forced to listen extremely closely to understand the text (if understanding the text is the listener's objective). There are no echoes or fragments in this, the first of three sections. By virtue of its loudness, especially as compared to the whispering, the monochord is in the foreground. The end of Section I comes with the completion of the reading of the text; the whispering stops, but the whisper-rhythms and the monochord continue.

The next section begins (the creaking monochord is unrelenting), and the clearly intelligible spoken voice enters and is closely echoed. With "Ultra tight fits unintentionally wanted by some . . ." the echo ceases and now changes to various readings of passages, phrases, words. After "The want to become again revives," the monochord sounds like a cry, howl, or moan. I hear despair, an identity crisis, grieving, the struggle of growth. Echoes return at "Fitness is no longer all." The vocal density thickens, then the monochord is isolated after "And reinvest ourselves with discards of now our own former molting." "Molting" here sounds like sawing, the separating away, with difficulty, the unwanted, shedding. This section ends with two layers of reading, finally reaching "Until."

Now the piano enters (for the first time?), and the monochord is in the background. Section 111 consists of one continuous reading, only one voice layer, with piano and monochord. The voice, once it enters, is the foreground throughout. At "we most of us try others on" a do-re-do motive enters on the piano and continues to the end of the piece. The background sounds like a delicate, yet creakingly uncomfortable, construction site (creaking, hammering, tapping, pings) which slowly fades, after the reading stops. The piece ends with a quiet, simultaneous do/re on the piano, two or three octaves apart.

In this tape collage piece, Barkin sets up a dichotomy with the awfulness, the uncomfortableness, of the creaking, groaning monochord, and the quietness, the implied intimacy, of the whispered voice. The monochord repelled me, but the whispering drew me in. As in past is part of, I was made aware of the body with the moist whisper sounds which become, here, a rhythmic layer. Also, as I listened, I became aware of my own body as it shivered, cringed, in response to the nails-on-the-chalkboard monochord; I squirmed in my seat, wanting to get away from the repulsive noise. I wanted to shed my own skin. This piece, too, is not propelled forward in the traditional sense, but it unfolds with first the "noise" being foreground, hindering the intelligibility of the whispered text. Then the layered reading of the text is given more prominence and builds in intensity/density to the end of Section 11. (However, there is still some competition for foreground, though not enough to obscure or hinder the text.) It is much easier to focus on the voice in Section 11 than in Section 1. By Section III, with one voice reading the text in its entirety, one layer, with no interruptions, the voice/text is clearly foreground and gains the full attention of the listener. The voice/text has struggled throughout the piece, shed the "noise," "cast off second hands" of the echoes and fragments, conjoined, consolidated. Until. . . .

Both past is part of and On the Way to Becoming illustrate Barkin's desire to express a human and personal experience. The listener is subtly, sometimes not so subtly, invited along. To some extent listener becomes participant, if willing. Barkin does not exercise the control and manipulation inherent in her musical past: pieces are not propelled forward; expectations are not set up, then fulfillment delayed, held back. This is also the case with . . . Out of the air. . . . In the program notes, she explains:

My purposes, having been asked by Georgina to do something for

her and basset horn, have been: to foster the potentials of collaborative

participation; to enable possibilities for the performer, ranging

from the most traditional to the most far-out liberated; to relinquish

authority albeit not responsibility; and to minimize my role as proprietary

instruction-giver by supplying an adaptable stimulus for

activity, directly inspired by, and having arisen out of the head of, the

same person for whom it has been conceived. The piece consists of nine unbound score sheets which

can be chosen and arranged--or not--in an(y) order. 4 of the sheets

include notated music; 5 have text--commentaries or inquiries for

Georgina to consider and respond to if she wishes (e.g., |rediscover

what may be lurking unexpressed'); all sheets include graphics or

blobs, interpretable for performance or as visuals.

This work is a true combining of Barkin's traditional-composer past and her active-participant present; her concern about community and involving the performer, who is directly invested in the piece, is paramount.

After studying these three works of Barkin's and reading her several essays and reviews, I was struck by the similarities between her work and points presented by Helene Cixous in "The Laugh of the Medusa." In this essay, Cixous states that "Woman must write her self. . . . Woman must put herself into the text . . ." (245). I found this especially evident in Barkin's own writings as she would explore ideas simultaneously, using parenthetical statements and interruptions, unconventional use of form, grammar, punctuations. Cixous acknowledges the past (literary past and gender representations), but refuses "to strengthen them by repeating them . . . " (245). She claims that "writing is precisely the very possibility of change" (249). Barkin also refuses to continue the traditional codes. Her pieces, discussed in this article, represent change; change is what they are mostly about. The establishment of "community rather than audience" is the realization of this change. Cixous later expands the idea of "Woman must write her self" with "Write your self. Your body must be heard" (250). 1 relate this to Barkin making the listener aware of the body (both hers and the listener's) by using the moist whisper-sounds, growling sounds, screeching monochord.

Cixous also claims that "In woman there is always more or less of the mother who makes everything all right . . ." (252); Barkin tells us "the trick is to move on." (Everything is all right; pick yourself up; brush yourself off and keep going.) Cixous explains that "Because she [woman] arrives, vibrant, over and again, we are at the beginning of a new history, or rather of a process of becoming . . ." (252); Barkin explores this process in On the Way to Becoming. Cixous continues with "she will bring about a mutation in human relations . . ." (253); Barkin works out that change with her "interactive GroupPlay," and, regarding the traditional composer/performer relationship, in works like . . . Out of the Air. . . Later in her essay, Cixous continues with: "Her [woman's] language does not contain, it carries; it does not hold back, it makes possible" (260); Barkin contains this concept in one word: "Until."

Elaine Barkin's working out of her past, and the process of becoming, reflects her personal development as well as her growth as a composer. This is what she shares in and through her music, and in the process, if the listener/participant is willing, the growth, the struggle to become, itself, is shared.


This paper was written conjunction with a seminar in Feminist Criticism in Music given by Susan McClary in the winter of 1992 at UCLA.


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Title Annotation:Feminist Theory Forum
Author:Frey, Janice Mowery
Publication:Perspectives of New Music
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Previous Article:Women working: an alternative to Gans.
Next Article:Masculine discourse in music theory.

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